Idle Capital Through Disruption
As the partial federal shutdown moved into its third week, I found myself thinking about the late left economist and sociologist Giovanni Arrighi’s concept of “workplace bargaining power” (WBP). By WBP, Arrighi meant the ability some strategically placed workers possess to idle capital and harm profits by bottle-necking the interdependent, integrated, and continuous flow of production. This, Arrighi argued, was different from the special “marketplace bargaining power” (MBP) some workers derive from the possession of scarce skills. WBP is available to “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” workers by virtue of their strategic position in highly capital-intensive production processes. It was no small part, Arrighi theorized, of how the United States’ once powerful industrial unions arose amidst the mass unemployment of the Great Depression .
The Shutdown’s Tipping Point: Worker Resistance
As the shutdown ground on, I started wondering when federal air-traffic controllers and other key and strategically placed air-travel workers would flex their capacity to disrupt the continuous flow of airline flight operations? The answer came last Friday when a sick-in of New York City controllers led to the stoppage of flights at LaGuardia Airport. Delays began piling up across the nation’s integrated air-travel system, a quarter of which moves through New York.
The disruption was just a taste of what might have come if the…